When the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the Electric Cooperative Youth Tour last summer, co-ops scrambled to salvage the experience for hundreds of disappointed teenagers who missed their chance to visit Washington, D.C.

South Carolina co-ops’ Virtual Youth Experience was one of those creative solutions. Through the weeklong program, 77 rising high school juniors and seniors virtually met state and national leaders and competed in a podcast competition explaining how the pandemic and other events of 2020 impacted their lives.

“We wanted this to be a program that went beyond one week of interaction,” said Van O’Cain, director of member and public relations at The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, based in Cayce. “We wanted to produce something that the students could carry with them the rest of their lives.”

For its efforts, ECSC is the 2021 recipient of the Edgar F. Chesnutt Award for Best Total Communication Program, presented virtually to O’Cain during the Connect Conference. The award, the highest honor bestowed by the Spotlight on Excellence Awards program, is named for Edgar F. Chesnutt, manager of corporate communication for Arkansas Electric Cooperatives from 1961 until 1987.

The podcast competition was the centerpiece of the virtual youth program. Co-op staff leveraged their own connections to find instructors knowledgeable of podcast production; national, state and local leaders to interact with students; and professional journalists to judge the 20 submissions.

“We allowed students to create their own history and tell their own stories,” said O’Cain. “One young lady spoke about subtle racism that she had endured most of her life. You hear those stories and say, ‘Wow. Our young people are experiencing this.’ We recorded the podcasts so that they can go back and show their own children what they were able to do during this one point in history.”

Chesnutt Award judges praised ECSC’s ability to deliver the program through online platforms and attract national attention.

One judge noted how the statewide association took teenagers’ short attention spans into consideration. “Simple can be hard to deliver,” the judge wrote.

Organizers at ECSC plan to repeat the podcast competition for this year’s event, which will be both virtual and in-person for their state’s participants.

“We were proud of what we put together, and we’ve been sharing what we’ve done with other co-ops and statewides” through templates and other how-to materials, said O’Cain, whose team included CEO Mike Couick and Chase Toler, public and member relations coordinator.

“The virtual Youth Tour was borne through a pandemic but will outlast COVID-19.”